Western Alps, part 1
Also posted to Summitpost.org here
“Do you know how much money you will save?” she said again, waving the jar of Magnesium crystals at Georg and I. We were enjoying a “sport drink” that Georg made by dissolving a mineral tablet in water. Kiki, wonderful woman that she is, saw this as an opportunity to unload her collection of chemicals, saved over years as manager of the Belvedere.
“Thats okay Kiki, we don’t really spend that much on these little health tablets,” I said.
“Okay, your loss!” and she disappeared into the kitchen. “Who left the dishes to dry!”
Such was life at the Belvedere, a wonderful home away from home for the alpinist in Argentire. For 18 euros a night you get a bunk, use of the kitchen, a commodious living room with a few like-minded sunburnt shells of men and women, and all the wifi you can suck up to placate your sponsors. Alas, Kiki tells us it is being sold next month, and will no doubt be yuppified into private rooms and a restaurant.
We were halfway into our trip, Georg and I. Exiles from the Eastern Alps, we always feel humbled coming into the Chamonix penumbra. The spirit of ridiculous levels of competence seems to bear down on you and your puny plans. Your greatest ambition was the childhood work of those walking nearby on the glacier. But still, we try and carry on. It’s all pointless anyway, and if you are still interested in this story then you are familiar with stubborn, quixotic quests…and cherish them yourselves. So hear our tale, what went right and wrong, and use scraps for your own table.
We actually began in the Valais, for a Saturday morning stroll up the Weissmies complete with shameless lift assistance. Georg had already acclimatized with friend Alex on the Rimpfischhorn and Zinalrothorn in the previous days. The Weissmies was a rather embarrassing concession to my need to breathe thin air. Feeling like the baby, I followed the guys onto the glacier, where we roped up and hit the track at about 9 am. 2 hours later we were 100 meters below the summit, suddenly wanting crampons for the icy terrain. Breaking rules of etiquette we stopped in the track and fumbled in our packs for the gear just as a party was coming through us. In a scene reminiscent of Monty Python an Englishman told us off well and proper for standing in the track. It was as if we’d called him “Old Woman” and he said not only was his name Denis, but he was only 47. And we hadn’t bothered to ask, either!
Finally the uncomfortably correct party was gone, and we went to the summit a little red-faced. It was a gorgeous day, and I got my first glimpse of the apple of Georg’s eye: the Taeschhorn-Dom traverse. He would not let that one go over the next week! Down we went, stopping for pie in a construction site by the lift station first.
Alex went home, hitchhiking as only students can. Georg and I slept at a Chamonix campground and planned to climb the Aiguille Verte from Montenvers over a dinner of ramen noodles and sausage.
Aiguille Verte by Grand Rocheuse South Buttress & Whymper Couloir
We walked the Mer de Glace for hours, me finally having to put on crampons to cross a dicey series of moulins. I’d grown increasingly tired of Georg on the other side of a deep cleft flowing with water, looking very smug for having chosen to cross the cleft when it was easy. He relaxed and stretched on a sunny boulder while I grubbed among watery crevasses to reach him, panting and out of sorts. Immaculate, and not even sweaty, he hoisted his pack and led off for a twisty journey through moraine and rock glacier. I had to laugh, as over and over on the trip Georg would be the elegant cat to my simple-minded dog. Still, we nearly walked past the turn off to the Couvercle Hut, only a random glance at a 200 meter high vertical cliff revealed a white paint mark. We’d already passed it, but it marked the ladders up from the glacier. 7 flights of vertical ladders with balconies, pitches and traverses later, my hands were cramping and I was really getting angry with myself for excessive fossil fuel consumption. Having paid the carbon tax, we could walk another hour to the hut, situated beautifully on a southern slope of boulders and heather looking right on the icy Grandes Jorasses and Leschaux Glacier.
On the Mer de Glace The first of many ladders to the Couvercle Hut The Couvercle Hut The Walker Spur at dinnertime
We’d decided to climb a variation to a variation. Because it was too late in the year for the Whymper Couloir, we chose the South Buttress of the Grand Rocheuse. And because the start seemed vague, and too intimately connected with good conditions in the lower Whymper Couloir (likely just frozen scree now), we found a variant start via the Armand Charlet Couloir to the right. The climb should be of a D grade, with rock of UIAA III, and a traverse of the mountain with a descent of the Moine Ridge sounded ideal. We ate our dessert, excited about the next day, and chatted with our German bunkmates…an older couple bound for Les Doites the next morning. The husband was like a scrawny Santa Claus, but his eyes shone with unworldly vigor. Such people make petty complaints die in your mouth, unuttered.
The glacier was easy in the darkness, only the Charlet Couloir provided some excitement. I placed a terrible ice screw at the ‘schrund, leaving it in even as I laughed at it because the psychological protection might come in handy. “Watch me, Georg,” and I struggled to enter a trench at the level of my forehead carved by rappellers, feet in rotten snow walls and tools scraping weakly at icy walls. Finally, a kind of “drop knee” move I’d learned from the book “How to climb 5.12” allowed me to totter on the edge of safety, black night and a wincing Georg behind, cool blue ice above. Emboldened, I blustered my way to a screw belay in the icy trench. “Come on up!” God I hope he doesn’t slip!
Two more short pitches in the trench got us to rock, and what we hoped was the III+ chimney that would get us on the South Buttress. After a Frankenstein lieback that had me seeing stars I was on another platform, then we traded leads up rock that seemed much too hard. A hilarious excavation pitch followed, in which I dismantled two ledges with my progress and reached a belay in an ominous bomb bay chimney.
Early climbing on the buttress A harder (grade V?) crack/flake pitch, beautiful climbing
“I think you can go up that crack, Georg,” I said, pointing to an overhanging fingercrack that might reach an angle less than vertical in the dim future. To his credit, he tried it. Feet in huge boots quivering by my head, he called it off and downclimbed quite gracefully. “No way.” Secretly relieved, I threaded the first of several retreat slings for the day, and we rappelled down and to the left. We would continue like this for hours…climbing at the very edge of our abilities in boots, stubbornly holding to the idea that we were on a grade III route and were only too weak to see it as such. Eventually I led one of my favorite rock climbing pitches ever in the mountains…cracks and flakes on a Wall of Delight to a narrow crest and a belay straddling a huge flake. Georg climbed another hard pitch and we succumbed again to sideways rappels down rotten rock to get off terrain we shouldn’t be on. A final great fin of rock lured us up once more, but now protection was non-existent. First Georg and then I fell to liebacking bare granite crests, riding waves of rock a cheval, gambling for a crack or flake somewhere above. We reached a level step in the ridge and solemnly promised no more: we were traversing into the Whymper Couloir…we had failed to find the “easy” route up the Grand Rocheuse.
Nasty pitches of loose rock and rotten snow followed, but we finally made it into the broad slot, now relatively secure. We noticed an interesting gear problem: I had a traditional ice axe, and the straight shaft gave me reliable security even in fairly rotten snow with a good deep plunge. Georg had a sharp and wicked ice tool, unfortunately with a bent handle and a large rand of plastic at the base to support “leashless” climbing. Therefore he couldn’t protect his climb adequately and had a nervous session of balancy work. We talked about a hypothetical “hybrid” tool with a reverse-curved pick and a straight shaft, as it seems like the world forgot that a straight shaft has a real security function (later we discovered Black Diamond makes this tool). Anyway, I led up to the ridge crest, occasionally protecting via slings on the side of the couloir. Georg was tired but regenerating.
In the Whymper Couloir At the top of the Whymper Couloir
We arrived at the summit along with a cloud, then confidently stomped down tracks…leading to the Drus! By the time we realized our mistake an hour had passed, and we slogged very tiredly back to the summit. Now it was my turn to draft, and Georg led us down the Moine Ridge for a while. It started to get dark and to snow, and I hate to say this but we did call the rescue personnel hoping for a quick helicopter ride somewhere. The problem was that I had no bivy gear (yes, I’m an idiot), and if we didn’t get out of there Georg would have to share his modest collection of warm gear. But the authorities were chipper and practical on the subject, telling us to curl up and wait for morning, certain that after a good rest we’d be happy to continue.
Well, damn. They weren’t wrong. I thought we lived in a litiguous society where for liability reasons anyone with a stubbed toe can call for a liter of Coke and a ride, right? Apparently not. Suitably bucked up, we continued the descent, just hoping to get as far down the ridge as we could before dark. Endless climbing up and down beautiful towers, many short rappels in the blowing clouds and snow. Georg and I found a decent place and spent an hour improving it, more to warm ourselves up than anything else. We scraped ice away from rock, leveled a platform, tied ourselves in and settled down, him with a down jacket and me with a bivy sack. A night of violent shivering, spasmodic hugs for warmth, snatches of jibbering song and laughter, and the civilizing dispensation of “Nimm Zwei” butterscotch candies at 1.5 hour intervals followed.
Oh it was long. But perhaps you know. Increasingly, I grew secretly proud of owning the experience and not being rescued from it.
Our bivy site Morning! Resuming the descent Rappelling the ‘schrund Going down the glacier, easily
Dawn. The blessed sun and a chance to move stiff limbs. We got moving. Georg led down a physically improbable wall of vertical snow. “Wierd!” I said, climbing carefully down it. Soon we were at the notch in the ridge where we could descent more easily to the glacier. A French man and woman came along, having bivied somewhere above us. The first people we’d seen in more than 24 hours, in high August on a popular mountain? Who would have thought!
The four of us continued down sunny ledges, then rappelled to the glacier. The old German couple was here, the man with a mad gleam in his eye, trying to reach an obscure Aiguille above the ‘schrund. (“Nicht mein Geschmack” his long-suffering wife would later tell us).
I led us on a hectic and sweaty standing glissade session down the glacier to find the hut wardens at lunch around a CB radio. “Welcome back!” they said, clapping non-ironically. They’d already talked with the Mountain Rescue folks about it, everyone a little confused about the American with a German phone number. We asked for meat and pasta, and the warden whipped up the best meal of the trip: pork chops with onions on a bed of oily noodles that was pure heaven. We quaffed beers, soaked in the sun, and napped heartily. In the morning we got up before dawn to descent the ladders, cross the glacier and take the train back to Chamonix.
Walking to the hut Food! Mer de Glace Again with ladders
At this point Kiki took us in, the Belvedere and nearby supermarket with greasy chicken and other delights would restore us to climbing shape.
END OF PART ONE.
See part II for the rest of our story…